Remembering Thomas Whitecloud

May 11, 2003

J. Ollie Edmunds

He was Native American, a second-generation Tulane graduate, a gifted surgeon, a leader in U.S. spine surgery, and he had a dish named for him at Cornish Game Hen Whitecloud." Thomas St. Germain Whitecloud III, chair and Ray J. Haddad, MD, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, died on Feb. 18, 2003, at the age of 62.

The "Chief" had a world-class reputation as an innovative spine surgeon and researcher on the cervical and lumbar spine. The most challenging cervical and lumbar spine cases were referred to him. He was the author of numerous articles, book chapters and journal articles, as well as the author and editor of several acclaimed textbooks on spine surgery. He received honors, such as the North American Spine Society's award "for life-long excellence in spine surgery and significant contributions to spinal research."

The spine fellows he trained practice all over the United States and Latin America. Tom was born in New Orleans in 1940 while his father, Thomas St. Germain Whitecloud II, was attending Tulane University School of Medicine. Graduating in 1943, the senior Whitecloud is believed to be the first Native American graduate of Tulane medical school. Tom was proud of his Native American heritage. Tom's interest in medicine began early.

At the age of 12 he was assisting his father in surgery. His medical education took a more formal turn at Louisiana College in Pineville, La., where he received a bachelor of science, pre-med, in 1962. He played quarterback for the Louisiana College "Wildcats" football team and was personally recruited for the Green Bay Packers by Coach Vince Lombardi to play NFL football.

Instead of playing pro ball, he went to medical school at Tulane and received his MD in 1966. He took his residency at Tulane as a U.S. public health service resident in orthopaedic surgery from 1967 to 1971. In 1972, he became chief surgeon of the U.S. Public Health Hospital and also joined the Tulane University School of Medicine faculty.

Tom was highly in demand as a surgical-technique course instructor. He and members of his sports faculty created the Tulane Institute for Sports Medicine. From the time he took over as chair of the Tulane De-partment of Orthopaedic Surgery, Tom grew the faculty members from nine to 21. He added physical medicine, oncology and trauma to the existing sections of hand, foot, sports, spine, joint reconstruction and pediatrics.

He and his faculty performed 2,681 (more than 30 percent of) surgical cases at Tulane University Hospital in 2002 and had strong practices in Slidell and Covington. In the last three years alone, Tom and his full-time faculty produced 150 publications, and made numerous presentations at national and international meetings. Tom's department competitively attracted some of the best resident physicians in the country.

Family was most important to Tom. He and his talented wife, Mercedes Bordelon Whitecloud, had five children: three lovely daughters, Renee, Simone and Elena, and two sons. One son, Jacques, a third-generation graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine, joined his father on the Tulane orthopaedic faculty in its division of physical medicine and rehabilitation. Their oldest and firstborn son, Thomas, better known as "Saint," has Down's syndrome. Tom and Mercedes kept Saint (now age 34) in their home and took him everywhere as a part of the family.

Tom considered Saint to be his greatest accomplishment and lived his life in poignant opposition to infant euthanasia in Down's syndrome. Tom enjoyed working out at the New Orleans Athletic Club several mornings a week before surgery or clinic at Tulane University Hospital. He lived in the French Quarter in a beautifully restored home on Royal Street that contains the Whitecloud Native American Indian artifacts collection.

He enjoyed reading, casual barbecues and crawfish boils with friends and family. He was an avid, long- suffering New Orleans Saints football fan. He loved music and had eclectic musical tastes from rock and roll to classical, and either could be heard playing in his operating room and home. Tom Whitecloud was the epitome of a role model for his residents, fellows and faculty, and was a man of great principle. He reminded his residents and fellows what a privilege it was for them to care for patients no matter what the patients' station in life. He reminded us always of the importance of family.

In spite of all of his accomplishments, he was not driven by ambition, although he was ambitious for his residents, his fellows, and for Tulane University School of Medicine.

J. Ollie Edmunds is a professor of orthopaedic surgery and chief of hand surgery at Tulane medical school. He can be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000